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A hearing-impaired Geelong woman who suffered an horrific crush injury and burns to her right hand in a workplace accident - resulting in the loss of her ability to communicate with sign language - has finally won her fight for compensation.

Darlene Harmer was injured in October 2006 when she was employed with a leather finishing firm AusTanners at Lara. The terrifying accident happened when her right hand got trapped in an embossing machine that pressed and heated leather, due to a faulty safety switch and an unsafe system of work.

Mrs Harmer was rushed to hospital in a serious condition with seven broken bones in her hand, third degree burns and a split between her thumb and forefinger. She subsequently underwent eight operations on her hand, and has been left with restricted movement of her right hand and fingers along with severe scarring.

Mrs Harmer’s pain and suffering was hugely compounded by the fact that she had relied upon her right hand to be able to communicate using the sign language Auslan. In addition, her sister Maree is blind and wheelchair-bound, and the two could only communicate using the direct touch and contact of their right hands. Sadly, the sisters can no longer speak to each other without an interpreter.

"With my difficulty in communicating, the injury to my right hand has been like having my tongue ripped out," Mrs Harmer said.

AusTanners was prosecuted by WorkSafe in July 2008 and fined $60,000 in the Geelong Magistrates Court. Magistrate Ron Saines found the company had failed to provide a safe work environment. In particular, he found the leather embossing press machine Mrs Harmer was operating was faulty and that the safety wiring had fused.

Slater and Gordon Workcover lawyer Danny Connor pursued Mrs Harmer’s claim for compensation for pain and suffering and loss of income.

Mr Connor said his client’s serious injuries had been caused by her employer’s negligence.

“Apart from the faulty machine that Mrs Harmer was directed to use, AusTanners made no allowance for any specialist interpreter assistance, nor did they provide any written instructions,” Mr Connor said.

“Mrs Harmer simply had to follow the lead of other workers, and she attended meetings where she had no understanding of what was being discussed.”

Mr Connor said Mrs Harmer had now received a substantial sum in damages that would go some way into making her life more comfortable.

“Even after the Magistrates Court ruling, the company tried to argue that Mrs Harmer should take some blame for the injury. This added further to the hurt and pain suffered by Mrs Harmer and her family,” he said.

“Mrs Harmer is a very brave woman but with a very significant disability. Despite the fact that she was working in a potentially dangerous work environment, she was not provided with any assistance. To then put blame on her was outrageous.

“I would be hard pressed to think of a worse example of employer negligence and lack of safety than the circumstances of Mrs Harmer’s injury.”

Mrs Harmer’s case involved significant support from specialist case workers and interpreters from the Victorian deaf community.